Antisemitism: A Specific Phenomenon (REVIEW)
by Edward Alexander
Antisemitism: A Specific Phenomenon, by Clemens Heni (Berlin: Edition Critic, 2013). A publication of the Berlin International Center for the Study of Antisemitism.
“As time went on … the Nazis not only became the source of power and wealth and the seekers after Germany’s greatness, but also learned how to handle footnotes and quotations…Hitler was aware of the necessity of presenting anti-Jewish ideology in a scholarly coating….By 1935 he had succeeded. Within a few years, the fight against the Jews was no more confined to shabby tracts by unknown authors; it had made its entrance into the respectable academic world of Germany.”
– Max Weinreich, Hitler’s Professors (YIVO/Yiddish Scientific Institute, 1946).
Clemens Heni is a young German scholar who has undertaken the Herculean task of throwing back the assault on Holocaust memory that is currently carried on “mostly in the ivory towers of esoteric academia” by activist professors (who demonstrate the explosive power of boredom). Himself a PhD in political science from Innsbruck and currently Director of the Berlin International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, Heni pays particular attention to the ignorance as well as tendentiousness of the learned. “We are currently facing a …movement around the globe to distort the history of the Second World War and to deny the uniqueness and unprecedented character of the Holocaust…. Many scholars…seem to have a clear mission: universalizing the Holocaust and denying its specific anti-Jewish character.” Heni shows, in this vast and discriminating critical survey of the campaign to make murdered European Jews into metaphors for both humanity in general and Palestinian Arabs in particular, that it would be dangerous to think of academics as harmless drudges who know so much about so little that they cannot be contradicted, nor are worth contradicting. Drudges they may be; harmless they are not. Their aims are not scholarly, but political—and often murderous.
Professors did not always take the lead in the campaign to make the Holocaust an assault not on Jews but on “humanity in general,” and eventually to reinvent the Palestinian Arabs as Jews and give them a free ride on the coattails of Jewish suffering. In 1979 I published an essay in several newspapers entitled “Stealing the Holocaust,” in which the 1956 dramatization by Francis and Albert Hackett of “The Diary of Anne Frank”—which is probably known to more people than any other literary or historical work on the Holocaust—was my most prominent example of de-Judaizing the Holocaust. Under the influence of Lillian Hellman, the Hacketts had expunged from the stage version all of Anne’s references to her hopes for survival in a Jewish homeland and changed her specific allusions to her Jewish identity to a blurred, amorphous universalism. In the diary Anne had written: “If we bear all this suffering and if there are still Jews left, when it is over, then Jews, instead of being doomed, will be held up as an example We can never become just Netherlanders, or just English…we will always remain Jews.” In the stage version, this became “We are not the only people that’ve had to suffer…sometimes one race, sometimes another.” This flummery no doubt helped at the box office; but for every lie a price must be paid, though not always by the liars. Not long afterward, part of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam was used as a PLO “Information” Center, in which Anne’s suffering and horrible death were made prelude to the “Auschwitz” of the Arab refugee camps.
But even in the seventies the academic revisionists were busily at work, though not yet as central to the enterprise of turning the Holocaust into a calamity in prospect for just about everybody—except, of course, the Jews themselves. In 1977 the Czech-born Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer delivered a ringing denunciation of the historians who were denying the Holocaust “in a more refined way than in the openly Nazi literature.” In “Against Mystification” (a lecture subsequently published in The Holocaust in Historical Perspective) Bauer insisted, and demonstrated, that “Hitler’s war of conquest was ideologically a war against the Jews….The basic aim of Hitler was always the struggle against the Jews. To befog this issue is to misunderstand the whole historical processs….The revisionist intellectuals, from A. J. P. Taylor through [Geoffrey] Barraclough, Werner Maser, and Joachim Fest in Germany, and the many others who seem to be jumping onto this particular bandwagon, have created the preconditions for a rehabilitation of Nazism and…a linkup between revisionist history and neo-Nazi pseudoscientific gutter history.” As I listened to Bauer’s eloquent and impassioned lecture—to an overflow audience of 500 people at the University of Washington—I thought, complacently, that he had finished off the campaign to deny that Hitler’s war had been a war against the Jews. Of course I was wrong: “Everything,” Proust once wrote, “has already been said, but since nobody pays attention, it must be repeated every morning.” By now, in fact, so many have jumped onto this “bandwagon” that not a single one of the culprits mentioned by Bauer appears in Heni’s 61 page bibliography or 43-page index.
What Heni provides, relentlessly, is a huge taxonomy of contemporary antisemitism, with special emphasis on those types that derive from the assault on Holocaust memory through universalization, trivialization, anti-capitalism, fanatical anti-Zionism, and a bizarre kind of envy. At universities this sometimes takes the form of rejecting Holocaust studies as a specific field of teaching and research because study of the specific murder of Jews—so its detractors allege–impedes the general understanding of genocide, unbalances our moral sense, and makes us insensitive to other victims of mass murder. Why this problem doesn’t arise for courses on slavery or the treatment of American Indians is not explained. At other times the emphasis is on numbers (very much in the manner of Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times, for whom everything is “a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic”: since the Jews “were fewer than one percent of the German population when Hitler became chancellor…and about one quarter of one percent by the beginning of the Second World War…and most of the German Jews who saw Hitler win elections in 1933 died of natural causes,” why, asks one scholar, all the disproportionate kerfuffle about Hitler and Jews and Auschwitz? And so on and on ad nauseam, until all the spiteful questions combine into one: “How dare the Jews monopolize all that beautiful Holocaust suffering, which other groups would very much like, ex post facto, to share?” The tone of much of this professorial polemic against Holocaust scholarship and memory has been described by Alvin Rosenfeld, in his indispensable book The End of the Holocaust, as “introducing a rhetoric of aggression against Jews that until now has rarely been seen outside of antisemitic literature.”
According to Heni, “the godfather of all kinds of universalization of the Holocaust” is Martin Heidegger, who in 1949 observed that “Agriculture is nowadays a motorized nutritional industry, by nature the same as the production of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockade and the starving out of countries, the same as the production of the H-bomb.” In case anybody has forgotten, Heidegger is the German philosopher who on April 10, 1933, acting in his capacity as rector of the University of Fribourg, had instructed his deans to dismiss all faculty members of Jewish religion or origin. A philosopher of world renown (as he remains to this day), he announced that this action helped to demonstrate that “the National Socialist revolution …means a complete revolution of our German existence…Hail Hitler.” (Well, perhaps not quite complete, because Heidegger, a married man, was at this very time busy seducing a Jewish undergraduate half his age named Hannah Arendt. One wonders how much of their pillow talk concerned his April dismissal of his Jewish colleagues.)
This foundational statement of Holocaust “universalization,” intended to make “modernity” rather than the Third Reich guilty of Germany’s crimes, helps to explain why Heidegger was fond of saying that “He who thinks greatly must err greatly.” Like the rest of the myriad of academics who inhabit Max Weinreich’s great book about how “Hitler’s Professors” made antisemitism academically respectable and complicit in the murder of Jews, Heidegger played a key role in making the Third Reich the first regime in history—as the political philosopher Leo Strauss observed in 1962–“based on no principle other than the negation of Jews.” This fact alone should render all denials of the specificity of the Holocaust nugatory—with one exception, which happens to be the very one that the deniers cannot admit, i.e, a similarity not between European Jews and Palestinian Arabs but between Palestinian Arabs and the Nazis. The Third Reich was the first regime in history to define itself entirely by negation of Jews, but by no means the last. A glance at most Palestinian calendars or at the Hamas Charter will readily confirm that Israel faces an enemy that bases its whole identity, including holidays, slogans, domestic and foreign policies, upon the prospect of destroying its Jewish neighbor. (Article Seven of The Hamas Charter reads as follows: “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”)